The Awful Science of Going On Holiday.

This originally appeared as a guest post for Guardian Science’s Brain Flapping blog. It’s still available here and I’ve only put it here as well because I like having things in the same place.


Science has already ruined this holiday image by pointing out that pearls are solidified mollusc mucus and shells are monuments to the corpses of marine animals

It is reasonably well known that long term stress with its (among other things) associated raised cortisol levels can damage the immune system. As such anything reducing stress might be seen as a good thing. There are many ways people choose to relax. Some people enjoy sports; others sit in front of the television, while Frankie mainly seemed to enjoy telling others to “RELAX!” At this time of year many people will be looking to getting away from it all and getting closer to different bits of it all on a holiday. Is there any science to this and what should a scientist do on holiday? Sort of and whatever they like. Let’s make a short list containing some facts loosely pertaining to holidays anyway.


The world is awful and full of death and disease so when you’re heading to certain bits of it for a good time you might want to consider vaccinating yourself. Health experts advise preparing for a holiday four to six weeks before travelling, especially if you need vaccinations. Diseases you might catch depending on destination include but are not limited to hepatitis A, malaria, yellow fever, polio and a deep sense of regret that you didn’t organise your travel vaccinations. Traveller’s diarrhoea is the most common illness contracted in people travelling abroad from the UK. It’s best to be careful with water and food that you consume lest you want a dispiriting case of “both ends”.

Jet Lag

Travel itself can make you feel less than spritely. Jet lag is a chronobiological problem. Before science fiction fans get excited this is not related to time travel. Such problems include the trauma of becoming your own grandparent and stepping on a prehistoric butterfly and finding out Hitler is now your librarian, but not jet lag. When you travel East to West (or vice versa) across time zones, taking your body with you as one does, your body clock will not be synchronised with the time of your destination. Your holiday will subject your body to patterns of night and day in opposition to the its normal rhythm. Biological processes dictating times for sleeping, eating and hormone regulation will no longer correspond to the usual time of day, resulting in jet lag. Symptoms include sleep disruption, worsened cognitive performance, fatigue, headache, irritability and a deep sense of regret you believed the Pet Shop boys and went west. Or east, but they don’t have a song about that.


 Once you’re immune system has been primed and your body agrees with its surroundings whether its time to sleep, eat or wail mournfully at an unfamiliar sky, the location of the holiday can have unexpected psychological effects. In some cases too much culture can be damaging. Stendhal syndrome is a psychosomatic disorder with symptoms including fainting, dizziness, tachycardia (rapid heart rate) and in some cases hallucinations, when the individual is exposed to particularly beautiful art or large amounts of art. It should be noted Stendhal syndrome is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV, although this may change with the increasingly creative approach the DSM seems to be taking. Stendhal syndrome was named in 1979 when an Italian psychiatrist, Graziella Magherini, described over 100 cases among visitors to Florence, often rushed to the hospital as emergencies from local art galleries. Luckily the treatment appears to be relatively simple and involves a retreat from the sublime to more a mundane reality.

Similarly, Paris syndrome is a transient psychological disorder encountered, as you might expect, by people visiting Paris, France. Symptoms include delusions, hallucinations, anxiety, and perceptions of persecution as well psychosomatic symptoms including dizziness, tachycardia and perspiration. Japanese tourists appear to be particularly susceptible with over 12 Japanese tourists a year falling foul of the condition. With Paris experiencing over 6 million visitors a year, the syndrome is hardly epidemic, although the Japanese embassy reportedly has an emergency hot-line for dealing with this problem. The cause is argued to be the shock of Paris not meeting unrealistic expectations of its idealised image of high culture. If this is the case then the lesson appears to be not to get your hopes up and expect perfection from a perfectly nice and beautiful city. Actually I guess in France it is Nice that is “perfectly nice”. The Nice tourist board are welcome to use this.

Helping Local Wildlife

If you’re going on holiday to observe wildlife, whether on safari or one of those places where you can watch fish through a glass floor, then you may be helping in unexpected ways. Social facilitation is the tendency for people to perform better at simple tasks when being observed by other people. For example cyclists’ speed will increase if they are racing against other cyclists rather than alone against the clock. The phenomenon isn’t restricted to humans. Psychologist, Robert Zajonc found cockroaches completed a maze quicker when they had an audience consisting of other cockroaches compared to when they were unobserved. Biologist, Shisan Chen found ants will dig three times as much sand when working alongside (without cooperation) other ants than when working alone. Unfortunately it appears that social facilitation occurs when observed by member of one’s own species. So if you want the tropical fish you’re observing to be more productive then you may have to disguise yourself as a large, voyeuristic clownfish. You then need to question how fish can be more productive and whether the costume is worth it.


From what I’ve said, the various aggravation of going on holiday might turn you to drink. Perhaps this is why a refreshing cocktail by the pool is such a staple of many vacations. Additionally thirst and enjoyment. If you are committed to the idea of a science holiday then you might try a science-themed cocktail. These might include The Large Hadron Colada, Mitosis on the Beach, Long Island Environment Causing Speciation Ice Tea or a Haematology Mary. Alternatively you might turn your gin and tonic into a liquid laser. Basically lasers emit light because electromagnetic radiation has undergone stimulated emission and optical amplification i.e. electrons release energy as light. If you subject your G&T to a blast from a 20-watt carbon dioxide laser, your drink will lase and its electrons will be stimulated to emit approximately 0.00001 watts of light. The laser may be dangerous, too much gin has health risks and the light of your drink is invisible to the naked eye, but you will be drinking a laser. So that’s cool.

Home Time

So overall it seems a science holiday involves disease, fatigue, despair, dressing as an animal and consuming difficult to obtain laser gin. I might just stay at home.

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